What is religion? In the process of answering this question, it is necessary to delimit it by saying what it is not. Religion itself (in the hands of human beings) may be too presumptuous in claiming hegemony (let alone validity!) in other domains.
For example, it is not history or empirical science. A faith narrative does not count in itself as a historical record. In making a theological claim, one is not proffering a historical account. One need only read Van Rad’s History of Israel to see how empirical history differs from how history is used in a faith narrative. One cannot use the latter as a source of historical fact even if it turns out that some historical events independently verified are incorporated. The point of a faith narrative is not to record history; indeed, “history” can legitimately be “massaged” because the points are theological rather than historical in nature. In other words, “history” in a faith narrative is not the same as empirical history.
Nevertheless, at a rather dysfunctional or “cultish,” right-wing (both in terms of Catholicism and American politics) parish that I visited at my rather homeostatic hometown, a layperson insisted that the Bible counts as a historical document (i.e, sufficient as historical evidence). Not only did she dismiss the all-but-certain objections of historians as to what qualifies as historical sources, she claimed that she could not be wrong about it. “That’s right,” she replied to me, “I can’t be wrong.” I was stunned. My first reaction was that she had unwittingly succumbed to self-idolatry, and thus of religion based on arrogance. Besides being presumptuous in her over-reaching, the old woman (who otherwise was quite nice) was the victim of a category mistake that has unfortunately been operative all too often in the history of religion: that a theological account suffices as historical evidence. As Hans Frei avers in Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, even asking, “Did that really happen?” is harmful (or out of place) because it gets in the way of the narrative. In other words, the question itself evinces that a category mistake is being made.
Similarly, a theological claim does not reach empirical science. A young priest at the dysfunctional parish claimed in one of his homilies that the dried blood of a Christian martyred under Diocletian turns to liquid on three days of the year—the same three days every year. If so, it is odd that the “miracle” has not received more press. Even if the claim of liquidation were empirically valid, the theological implications could be considered quite strange, if not undercutting. To that priest, I would repeat Augustine’s comment to one of his theological disputants: Your claim might be more credible were it sound rather than like something insane people are wont to say. Why, for example, would the deity that created existence and all that exists play around with a few vials of dried blood? Such a parlor trick seems more on the level of Descartes’ evil deceiver. Adult faith (as well as that of the innocence of a child, which Jesus lauds) seems to me to be totally disparate with such childish games. A priest who brings such a game into a religious context populated by adults might be given some time to grow up spiritually before returning to his preachments. Of course, some people never outgrow the adolescent stage, even if they presume to have religious authority.
Less obvious but perhaps just as controversial, religion is not metaphysics—the field of philosophy oriented to what is real, or reality. I contend that religious faith does not tell us anything about Kant’s realm of things in themselves. Theological claims transcend things as they are because God is posited to be the source of being rather than existence itself. The essence of God is not existence because God gives rise to it. God is the condition for existence. So it does not make sense to claim that the manifestations or personae of the Trinity exist as things in themselves (i.e., metaphysically, as real). Theology is not about reality; one is not worshipping things in themselves when one is grasping for, or yearning for the transcendent in a religious sense. In Kantian terms, religious experience is not the leap from the phenomenal realm of appearances to the numinal realm of things in themselves. Based on a theological claim, one is therefore not entitled to say, “the Persons of the Trinity are what really exists.” One who makes such a claim is in actuality a philosopher rather than a religious. To conflate the two is to conflate what Paul calls the “wisdom of Athens” with the innocence of religious faith open to the presence of the divine. Such faith transcends reason and cognition—even in a creed. A creed is like a script’s basic skeleton—something used to depict the basics of a story. The narrative in turn is merely a means relative to the religious experience of grasping or yearning through with a gaze beyond.
Therefore, theological claims are not about even reality; rather, they transcend it, as reality itself is created. Like sunlight that goes through the green leaves of trees and grass when the sun is low in the sky, theology cuts through time-space. Religious experience is independent of it; hence, such “life” is experienced as eternal and sui generis (i.e., of its own genre or type). We are so used to hanging “religious experience” on historical events that we posit, empirical “miracles,” or even reality that I suspect we would barely recognize the dimension of religiosity itself. Making matters worse, we also tend to view the theological as moral and even in terms of our own politics. In other words, we project our own ideologies onto the real, giving our self-idolatry far more significance than it merits.